Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey

I can certainly recommend that you read The Island of Lost Maps 
(2000) if you are:

1. Interested at all in maps and mapmakers.

2. Like the unraveling of a true mystery.

3. Enjoy a meandering read that includes a bit of history, a smattering of Greek and Roman mythology, tales of navigators who sailed in the Age of Discovery, and adventures of the pathfinders who helped to map and explore the United States.

The overall arc of this true crime story is about a mild-mannered man who committed crimes in public against the public. It is brilliantly told by author Miles Harvey.

Gilbert Bland was by all accounts as bland as his name. But his actions were not quite so unimaginative. Mr. Bland went on a map stealing crime spree that took him to research libraries in the United States and Canada and perhaps even Great Britain. After gaining access to rare books rooms with a fake identification card, Mr. Bland would ask for specific volumes and when no one was looking - which apparently was quite often - would cut out valuable maps, stuff them under his shirt, and walk out of the library. He then sold the stolen maps to collectors and dealers. He actually had a Hit List - a notebook full of specific ancient maps that he wanted to pilfer.

It made me feel quite sick to my stomach to read about someone who had the temerity to handle a book with razor blade in hand.

In the telling of Mr. Bland's criminal career, capture, confessions, and convictions, the author gives the reader so much more than just a tale of thievery.

There are stories of Christopher Columbus, American explorer John Frémont, famous mapmakers, and wheeler-dealers in the map collecting world. Mr. Harvey takes the reader all over the map from the Garden of Eden to El Dorado; from Ponce de León's Fountain of Youth to Vietnam; from the Peabody Library in Baltimore to the University of Washington Library in Seattle; and from mapping land to mapping oceans and space. 

One also gets a glimpse into what drives Mr. Harvey to track down information about a man whom he is destined never to meet and the lengths to which he goes in order to try and determine the Why of Gilbert Bland's actions.

Mr. Harvey also interviews professionals that give insight into the motives that drive individuals to obsessively collect everything from ancient maps to books to PEZ candy dispensers.

And, after reading this book, you will never again look at the people sitting at reading tables or lurking in the stacks in your local library without just a smidgen of suspicion.

The Island of Lost Maps is truly a remarkable trip into known and unknown worlds. As a matter of fact, I am so delighted with this book that I will happily send my copy (which has a few markings in it from the previous owner) to anywhere on the map if you leave a comment expressing a desire to read it. In the event of multiple comments, I will draw the winning name out of the proverbial hat on Monday or Tuesday. Happy tripping!


  1. It's a really good book, isn't it? I remember really liking it when I read it, too. Although I felt bad about all the stolen maps that will never be recovered. So, what are you going to read next?

    1. Lark, I am so glad I found this book on the library sale table. It was fascinating. Mr. Harvey has another book entitled 'Painter in a Savage Land'. It takes a look at the first European artist to come to America to capture images of the New World. Sounds intriguing.

      As to my next book, I think I will dig into the memoir by Carl Sandburg's granddaughter about her time growing up at Connemara. I have so many books to choose from after my unbridled shopping recently!

  2. I just cannot imagine the sort of person who would do something like that to a book. I realise that's naive, but I don't even feel really comfortable about unloved books turned into art-works, even when I know they'd probably be thrown out if not 'saved' thus.

    1. Vicki, I so agree. It was rather disturbing to read about not only his desecration of books but also others, i.e. dealers, who 'break' books down to sell piece by piece. Greed certainly overcomes good sense in some cases. But the thievery aside, this was a fascinating story all the more intriguing because it was true.

  3. I, too, am dismayed that anyone would deface old books in that way, or in any way. However, I've been enchanted by maps since I was a child (remember the huge pull-down maps that used to hang in the schoolrooms?). Whenever I read something where actual geography is important, I want to have a map handy to help orient what is being written about. And the passion for maps has had some carryover, as my middle son became a geographer! The book sounds so interesting.

    1. LaLa, thank for your comments. I think you would very much like this book. I too have a fascination with maps - I can get lost in the simplest road map or the ancient ones that feature "monsters be here". And I do remember the pull-down maps. I wish I had one of the world in my house. What a wonderful accessory that would be!